While discussions around Australia’s cattle and beef exports to Indonesia took a back seat to more pressing political issues during prime minister Tony Abbott’s visit to Indonesia this week, trade representatives say the trip has been a positive step in rebuilding damaged relations with one of Australia’s most important markets.
Mr Abbott's visit was never expected to produce tangible outcomes such as immediate increases in permits for Australian exporters.
Rather, beef and cattle trade representatives had hoped it would lay the platform for discussion to deliver the future policy settings required to provide certainty and security to both Australia and Indonesia.
Australian Livestock Export Council chief executive officer Alison Penfold said a visit by Mr Abbott and foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop to Indonesian feedlots and abattoirs last year meant the new Australian Government was operating with a first-hand and physical knowledge of the trade, rather than a conceptual one.
That Mr Abbott had made trade and investment an integral focus of this visit, taking with him 20 industry leaders including Elders’ Malcolm Jackman, AA Co’s Donald McGauchie and live export industry veteran Ken Warriner, had further instilled confidence that the new Australian Government was serious about bolstering economic ties with Indonesia.
As he pledged to do during the election campaign, Mr Abbott used his visit to apologise for the former Government’s handling of the live cattle trade.
"There have been times, I'm sorry to say, when Australia must have tried your patience: when we 'put the sugar on the table' for people smugglers; or cancelled the live cattle trade in panic at a TV program," he said at official reception in Jakarta hosted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last night.
"Let us make a new start, particularly in the area of agriculture and food security.
"Never again should this country take action which jeopardises the food supply of such a friend and partner as Indonesia is."
He said he was confident that the live cattle ban decision would soon seem to Indoneisa like an “out-of-character aberration” and that the relationship going forward would be one of ‘no surprises, based on mutual trust, dependability and absolute respect for each other's sovereignty under the Lombok Treaty."
It has also been reported that during the tour new trade minister Andrew Robb attended a Beef and Cattle Industry Roundtable and visit feedlots and food markets outside Jakarta.
Ms Penfold said what both sides of the live cattle trade between Australia and Indonesia desperately required was security and certainty.
She said that Australia's livestock export industry would always work with Indoneisa to meet its requirements, but also needed in return clarity and longer lead-times so it was not constantly caught in a “quarterly cycle of scramble”.
“For a number of years now we have had a lack of security and a lack of certainty produced by policy settings on both sides,” Ms Penfold said.
“There has been a lot of short term decision making, but we need some long term thinking and decision making so the right signals can be sent to the supply chain.
“Producers need 8-12 months lead time to start planning, exporters need long times to start planning, importers need to know what is coming in and out.”
Meanwhile a number of shipments have left Australia for Indonesia under the fourth quarter permits for 46,000 head of feeder cattle, amid reports that further permit for slaughter-weight cattle has also been released.
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